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Sweeps, creeps, and interrupted sleeps: my experience working in a hostel in Bordeaux!

Last summer, eager to kickstart my year abroad, I decided to spend a month working in a hostel in Bordeaux. Those few weeks were, without a doubt, some of the best of my life, but that is not to say that things were always easy, or as I would have liked them to be. In this article, I’m going to be giving a very honest review of my experience – the highs and the lows – and hopefully answering any questions you may have if you’re considering applying for a similar position.

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How did I find the job?

I found this job, thanks to a brilliant website called Workaway. Here, you can find thousands of postings for volunteering positions, the vast majority of which offer free bed and board in exchange for twenty hours of work a week. I knew I wanted a job in a hostel, and I was keen to go somewhere in the south of France, so from there, it was just a question of writing to every single company whose advertisement fit the criteria. The place I ended up working at initially wrote back saying, ‘We like your profile, but don’t have any free slots at the moment’. Thankfully, I’d already become obsessed with the idea of going to Bordeaux, so I continued my correspondence with them until a position did miraculously become available. Be persistent, kids – it pays off!

What was the hostel like?

The hostel I was working in was a dream come true! It was located in the up-and-coming Chartrons district of Bordeaux, so we were within walking distance of the centre, but away from the hustle and bustle of it. My hostel had about thirty guest beds – plus a separate staff dormitory (I’ll go into that more later) – and was wonderfully cosy and welcoming. Each evening, we’d have a communal dinner in the common area, and some nights we’d put on pub crawls or watch films together. If nothing was planned, though, everyone would just sit and chat on the sofas or chill together on the patio. People of all ages stayed with us, and the vast majority left stellar reviews!

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What was the work like?

There were four different shifts in my hostel – the breakfast shift, the cleaning shift, the dinner shift, and the night shift – so each day you’d be doing something new. There was usually just one person on duty at each time (although sometimes you’d have a supervisor there to help out), so things did get pretty stressful at times! However, for the most part, the jobs were pretty simple, and you very quickly got to know the ins and outs of the hostel.

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The breakfast shift – 7am-1pm

Breakfast shifts began – surprise, surprise! – with cooking and serving 'le petit déjeuner'. I was a pretty inexperienced cook before I arrived, so was very worried about this, but it turned out we only had to make very basic dishes like scrambled egg and bacon. Once everyone had finished their meal, you had to clear the tables and do the washing up, which would have been pretty easy, only this was also the time that guests were checking out! I can’t tell you the number of times I had to rush from the kitchen sink to the reception desk to sort someone out. After this, you’d usually have to strip and remake a few beds, all while answering phone calls, making sure that the laundry was running smoothly, and making regular trips back to reception to check if anyone was waiting to be seen.

The cleaning shift – 11am-3pm

The cleaning shift was by far my least favourite, probably because it required the most physical exercise. You wouldn’t think it, but changing fifteen beds in one morning was a proper workout, not to mention scrubbing showers and toilet bowls. Our bosses were also pretty harsh with their feedback – understandably, since they obviously wanted to make a good impression on their guests – so I often overdid things a bit (thereby increasing my exhaustion), just to be on the safe side. One of my fellow workers said she’d never seen taps so shiny! Other jobs included: sweeping, hoovering, washing floors, emptying bins, checking people in (even though you weren’t even supposed to be in the reception area – grrr!), and answering phone calls. You would definitely get into the swing of things over time – for example, I worked out the quickest order to put sheets on a bed in – but I can’t say my limbs ever got accustomed to the constant bending and stretching.

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The dinner shift – 7pm-11pm

From worst to best: the dinner shift was definitely my favourite! By that time, most guest had checked in, so there wasn’t much reception work to be done. Instead, it was just a question – at least for the first two hours – of getting people to sign up for dinner and cooking said meal. I loved this shift, not only because it was one of the shortest, but also because you got to spend a good chunk of it just sitting at the table, socialising with guests and other workers. Once everyone had finished, you’d have to clear away everyone's plates, wash up, and then get to selling drinks. There was usually at least one group of travellers planning to have to a wild night, so the atmosphere got pretty lively around this time.

The night shift – 11pm-8am

And finally, the dreaded night shift! I actually never had to do one, and thank goodness, because I probably would have fallen asleep on the job! The unlucky ones who did get assigned nighttime duties essentially just had to clean everywhere (except in the dormitories, of course), and keep the laundry going throughout the night. I was told that it was actually a pretty relaxed shift, although there were apparently one or two incidents: guests complaining about their neighbours snoring, people coming back to the hostel drunk and causing chaos, etc.

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What were working conditions like?

Overall, I’d say working conditions were good. All the jobs I had to do were pretty self-explanatory (even if not always physically easy!), and I knew I could always ask for help if I didn’t understand something. I also had a lot of free time – one hundred and forty eight hours a week, to be exact! – so got the chance to explore the city fully (read my two blog posts on Bordeaux here and here), as well as the surrounding area.

That being said, it definitely wasn't always rainbows and butterflies. For one thing, as you may have gathered from the ‘What was the work like?’ section, we were often expected to be doing more than one job at the same time: for example, during the cleaning shift, we were supposed to be working in the bathrooms and dorms, while simultaneously handling all the reception duties. Since this wasn’t always possible, I’d sometimes be told off for leaving guests waiting, but – downside number two – if I tried to defend my mistakes, I’d usually just be ignored or talked down to. Leading on from this, I’d also get in trouble for making tiny, and ultimately completely harmless, mistakes. One time, for example, I got shouted at for accidentally putting nine bedsheets into the washing machine, when the maximum number was eight.

Another thing I wasn’t so keen on was the fact that our bosses would sometimes ask us to lie or deceive people. I was told during my breakfast shift to encourage guests to get a 1€ coffee and croissant meal deal – hot drinks were free for all, so actually only the pastry was included in that price – and my boyfriend, who had stayed in our rival hostel, was asked to leave them a one star review (he never did!). Finally, I worked an extra shift – you’d get 10€ an hour for overtime – but never received the due payment. To be fair, this is partly my fault, since I never really followed them up on this, but I would expect an employer to pay his employees without having to be asked. Also, I heard that some of my more insistent colleagues had a difficult time getting their money, even when they did kick up a fuss!

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What were living conditions like?

As someone who doesn’t have very high standards when it comes to living conditions, I was pretty satisfied with my setup. I shared a room with seven other staff members – male and female, all on bunkbeds – and it was surprisingly neither too noisy, nor too much of an invasion of privacy. There were times when I’d be disturbed by my roommates snoring during the night, or getting up during the morning, but as someone who has to set about twenty alarms a day, I’m sure I did my fair share of annoying people!

One thing I will say is that we definitely didn't have enough space. For storage, we were provided with two cubicle-sized rooms: not ideal when you've got eight huge suitcases between you – I ended up having to keep a lot of stuff at the foot of my bed. We also didn't really have anywhere to go if we felt like a bit of alone time – even just access to the unoccupied bedroom next door would have been nice, once in a while. The dorm also smelled pretty bad, since it was barely ever cleaned, and I believe there were a couple of mouse spottings in the corridor outside – eek!

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What was my social life like?

I was really scared, before arriving at the hostel, that I’d make no friends, and have a very lonely time. However, I couldn’t have been more wrong: I met loads of amazing people, many of whom I have stayed in touch with, and seen again since, and one of whom is now my boyfriend! I hung out with guests and colleagues alike, and during our free time, we got up to so many things together: lake swimming, shopping, going on day trips, bar-hopping, going out to eat, and even just sitting around and chatting about our respective travel adventures.

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What was it like working as a woman?

Before doing this job, I wouldn't have expected a section like this to be necessary, but my goodness did being female make my experience differ enormously from that of my male colleagues. Nothing too awful happened to me, but I certainly had my fair sure of awkward encounters with creepy men. One asked, in broken English, ‘Do you f*ck me?’; another told me my hands looked sexy round the cylindrical part of the hoover I was using; another lunged to kiss me while he was drunk (luckily I had time to turn my face to the side!); still more stared at me persistently while I was on shift, often grinning when I returned their gaze; and one or two made a bit physical contact than I would have liked.

I understand that some people travel specifically to find love, but a lot of these men – and I've only mentioned a fraction of them! – were significantly older than me, and clearly didn’t know how to take a hint!

What did I learn from the job?

I learned a lot of things from this job: that cleaners and hotel staff have a very difficult job, and that I should never take them for granted; that working in a hostel is one of the best ways to see a city and get free accommodation, but not to learn a foreign language (I barely spoke a word of French!); that there are so many people out there to make friends and fall in love with; that people in positions of authority aren’t always right; that I can – and should – stick up for myself, and finally that travelling is my number one passion in life.

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Overall review

As I said at the beginning of this article, September 2018 was one of the best months of my life, and I wouldn’t trade those memories for the world. Yes, there were downsides to my hostel job, but the pros definitely outweighed the cons, and I hope that if you’re considering doing something similar, you’ll treat my negative experiences more as a word of warning than as an actual deterrent. I certainly wasn’t put off pursuing this line of work in the future. Quite the opposite, in fact: I’m looking to do a similar gig this summer! Whether you’re a first-time traveller, or have visited countries all across the globe, I'd strongly recommend you do the same: you’ll make fantastic friends, and, as long as you stay safe and alert, you’ll have a wonderful – likely life-changing – time.


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